Gangs in Lexington County more active, violent and recruiting as young as 8, cops say

Gang activity in South Carolina: It is a problem

The annual Gang Conference started today with hundreds of law enforcement officers from around the state attending the South Carolina Gang Investigator's Association convention this week in Myrtle Beach. Monday through Thursday, members will atten
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The annual Gang Conference started today with hundreds of law enforcement officers from around the state attending the South Carolina Gang Investigator's Association convention this week in Myrtle Beach. Monday through Thursday, members will atten

Among the problems created by Lexington County’s explosive growth in recent years is an increase in criminal gangs, police say.

The sheriff’s department says 31 gangs operate in the county, including six motorcycle gangs. Since the start of 2018, those gangs have committed at least 210 crimes, police say. By comparison, in 2002, the State Law Enforcement Division logged 14 gang-related incidents in Lexington County, The State reported.

Eight people have been killed by gang members in the last three years, the sheriff’s department said.

The county has local chapters of large, national gangs, drug trafficking organizations, outlaw motorcycle gangs and some gangs that popped up locally without having ties elsewhere, investigator Brian Zwolak said. Though gangs historically sprung from marginalized communities that were trying to protect themselves, their makeup has changed. Gangs have members of all races and genders — they adapt to the demographics of the area, according to Zwolak.

Because of growing concerns about gangs, the Lexington County Council recently voted to permit the sheriff’s department to apply for a grant that would fund a three-person gang investigative unit. The Criminal Justice Program Grant is awarded by the state Department of Public Safety and covers salary, fringe benefits, operating costs and equipment for a maximum of three years.

“Gangs commit crimes that reduce the quality of life for communities and prey off of future generations when recruiting members,” a program overview provided to county council said.

Zwolak has spent his entire 12-year career in law enforcement investigating gang activity — first in New York, then Columbia and, since 2016, in Lexington County. He said he’s seen two big shifts in the county’s gangs in recent years: Recruitment of younger children and more violent incidents.

When he first started investigating gangs, Zwolak said the youngest children being recruited were 12 or 13 years old.

“Now, I’ll say about eight” years old, he said.

Many gangs have lowered the bar for entry, he said, because more members equal more cash.

“The primary goal of gangs is to make money,” Zwolak said.

Oftentimes, young recruits will need to complete tasks in order to become part of the gang. They’ll be sent off to break into autos or steal and, as a reward, get some of the loot, Zwolak said. Many young gang members are runaways who were distanced from family and friends and desperate to belong. Some recruits just want to help their families make ends meet, Zwolak said.

Those smaller, nonviolent acts can often escalate into more serious crimes as gang members become experienced, according to Zwolak. Break-ins can quickly turn into shootings, armed robberies, drug dealing and more, he said.

Social media, and the public persona young people create on different platforms, adds pressure, too. Disagreements on social media can “heat up more and boil over,” resulting in reckless crimes that don’t match the severity of the argument, according to Zwolak.

“Some things that used to be squashed now are turning into encounters that are more deadly,” Zwolak told a group of community members last week attending the sheriff department’s Citizens Academy.

The nine-week course teaches residents about the job of law enforcement and the criminal landscape of their communities. On the first Tuesday night in April, the 20 or so students learned about gangs.

The sheriff’s department said the eight people killed in Lexington County by validated gang members are:

  • Donte Omar Doyle, 29, of Columbia, who was found with a bullet in his left ribcage outside a building at the River Oaks apartment complex on Bush River Road in August 2015. Leonard Mickens Jr., 27, was arrested and charged with murder two years later, while he was already incarcerated. He is awaiting trial.
  • Ryan Williams, 21, was found dead on Meadowfield Road in Gaston in April 2016. Nobody has been charged with killing Williams.
  • Annette Riley, 44, was found shot to death on the 300 block of State Pond Road in October 2017. Four people were charged with murder: Amaria Regina Hamm, 20, Monyell Deshea Fulton, 22, Treshawn Alexander, 23, and Ashley Danielle Riley, 29.
  • Rodney Steven Isaac Jr., 23, was found shot to death in a driveway on Princeton Road in West Columbia in February 2017. The suspect, Kevin Lawrence Pearson, 25, was on Lexington County’s “most wanted” list until June 2018, when he was arrested and charged with murder and criminal conspiracy. That case is pending.
  • Derrick James Jones, 35, of Lexington died from injuries he suffered in a May 2017 shooting on the 100 block of South Hampton Road near Red Bank. In June 2017, Jeremy Antonio Williams, 22, turned himself in. He was charged with murder, possession of a weapon during a violent crime and unlawful possession of a weapon.
  • Rodney Tremaine Leak, 41, was killed at City Nightz Bar and Grill in West Columbia in December 2017. Christopher Jamel Brisbon, 27, was arrested during a traffic stop and charged with murder, possession of a weapon during a violent crime, burglary, criminal conspiracy and three counts of first degree assault and battery.
  • Brian Jovon Rogers, 36, was killed in March 2018 in a shooting at the Peachtree Place apartment complex parking lot on the 200 block of Berryhill Road. Four suspects, including one juvenile, were arrested in connection with Rogers’ death. Three of them — Correy Trizamiee Brown, 21, Mathia Lamont Chambers, 17, and the juvenile — were charged with murder and armed robbery. Breondre Johnson, 22, was arrested and charged with accessory to murder.
  • David “John Jr.” Washington, 57, died from injuries he suffered when gunfire entered his West Columbia home in January 2017. No arrest has been made in the case, the sheriff’s department said.

Human trafficking, which often festers in conjunction with narcotics, has also increased among gangs, Zwolak said. The people being trafficked are typically not kidnapped, nor are they from other countries, he said: They’re local adults, girls and boys who have been isolated from their support systems. Unlike drugs, which eventually run out, bodies can be sold repeatedly.

“They’re making tons and tons of money off of that stuff,” Zwolak said.

Part of the increase in Lexington County’s recorded gang activity is caused by members moving from cities to more suburban and rural areas along with regular migration patterns. Plus, law enforcement only started tracking and logging gang activity in detail recently, Zwolak said.

Many police and sheriff’s departments have small gang investigative units if they have any at all, so it can be nearly impossible to catch up with increasing, persistent gang activity.

The State Law Enforcement Division maintains a database called Gangnet, in which all local police forces are required to enter information on gangs and validated gang members. This system was started when South Carolina passed the 2007 Criminal Gang Prevention Act.

In order for police to validate someone as a gang member, they must determine that the person meets certain criteria. If someone admits to being a gang member while under arrest or in jail, he or she can be validated based on that alone.

People also can be declared a gang member if:

  • They live or stay in an area with gang activity; adopt gang dress, slang, gestures, tattoos; and are associated with known gang members.

  • They were identified as a gang member by an informant and that information is corroborated by an independent informant.
  • They were arrested more than once with gang members for gang-related offenses.
  • They admit to being a gang member at a time other than arrest or incarceration.

“We check as many boxes as possible,” Zwolak said.

Validating one potential gang member can take a detective up to four hours, he said — another reason why it’s hard to keep up.

In Lexington County, it’s just Zwolak. Though the sheriff’s department has had multiple investigators in former gang units, the staffing of those has fluctuated through the years.

Lexington County also works together with the Midlands Gang Task Force and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, as well as municipal law enforcement, because gangs “don’t care about the jurisdictional lines,” Zwolak said.

South Carolina passed the 2007 anti-gang law in an effort to unify gang policing. That law was based on one passed in Georgia, Zwolak said. Georgia’s statute has since been updated multiple times, he said, but South Carolina’s has remained the same.

The law provides definitions to help police identify criminal gangs and members, but hasn’t been expanded to reflect the growing presence of gangs in the state, he said.

“We’re probably 10 to 15 years behind the times,” Zwolak said.

The law defines gangs as having at least five people who are organized in some way — a name, set of symbols, language or similar clothing — and have exhibited a pattern of criminal activity. The law also contains a list of crimes, and people must have committed at least four in a two-year period in order to be considered a gang member.

Those crimes include: Violent offenses; financial transaction card crimes; lynching; motor vehicle break-ins; grand larceny; blackmail; malicious injury to property; drug offenses; harassment or stalking; pointing a firearm at anyone; firing a gun into structures or vehicles; or aggravated assault and battery.

Because it is not against the law to be a gang member, police go after gangs by targeting criminal acts. Zwolak said he wants the law amended so that gang members who break the law face additional charges. As is, a person in a gang and a person not in a gang face the same charges for the same offense. The only difference, he said, is the gang member would be entered into GangNet and their involvement would be mentioned in bond court.

“We at least have something, but it would be nice to see it having some teeth to it,” he said. “Maybe some stipulations that you’re involved in this.”

Some other states, including North Carolina, have changed the law so gang members and leaders face steeper consequences for committing crimes.

Zwolak said sharpening laws would help punish organized criminal activity, and it might also deter prospective recruits if they know, “You join a gang, you’ll get into extra trouble.” And keeping young people out of gangs is a significant part of his work, he said, because it tempers the generational criminal cycle.

He said he uses the “in-your-face” approach to policing gangs. He doesn’t do “squirrel in the bushes” hiding. He doesn’t drive a plain-looking, unmarked police car. He goes into communities affected by gang violence and tells them police are in the area. He said he gives his business card to as many people as possible — even gang members — so it is never obvious who in the community called the cops, protecting those who report gang activity.

“I have noticed that being a tool to actually suppress the activity, because they know someone’s watching. They know someone’s working it,” he said.

Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.